An Interview with Jonathan Segura
Author of Occupational Hazards
This interview was conducted by Guy Savage for MostlyFiction.com (MF).
Jonathan Segura, deputy reviews editor for Publishers Weekly published his first novel, Occupational Hazards in 2008. After finishing the novel, and as an avid fan of noir, I knew I had to interview this author, and I’m delighted that he agreed.
MF: Ok, Jonathan, you are the deputy reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, would you explain what that entails?
JS: My beat is general fiction, so I cover a pretty wide range of fiction, from the occasional vampire sex novel to Philip Roth. The nutshell: my reviewers (a lovely and talented crew) read and review the books, and I edit the reviews. The “deputy” end of the job comes in largely if the reviews director is out of the office, then I have to fill her estimable shoes (boots?). Also, I have saloon doors on my cube.
MF: How did your job at Publishers Weekly influence the process of writing and selling OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS?
JS: The writing, not so much; I had it all but done before I started at PW. And I certainly didn’t get special consideration when the manuscript was making the rounds. Which is another way of saying it was rejected plenty before finding the perfect home at S&S. Though I will say it was a very dark year watching a truckload of galleys come in every day while collecting a not-small stack of reject letters.
MF: Prior to working for Publishers Weekly, you worked as a reporter for an Omaha newspaper. What are the real-life occupational hazards of crime reporting?
JS: It’s not a fun thing to knock on someone’s door the day after their kid was killed and ask how they’re feeling. But, I didn’t actually end up doing much crime reporting. Most of what I covered was city hall and courts, sexy as those are. Occupational hazards of city hall are interminable board meetings and the constant threat of paper cuts. Covering courts was fun, if for no other reason than every day offers the chance to dunk your head in the toilet of humanity.
MF: Please describe OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS for our readers.
JS: Occupational Hazards is a filthy little first-person noir set in Omaha, Neb., about a reporter for a low-rent alternative newsweekly whose coverage of a homicide leads him into a dark and dangerous conspiracy. The narrator, Bernard Cockburn, isn’t the kind of guy you’d want to have over to babysit the kids, and he’s also probably not someone most of us would like to date. More on these things in the next few questions, I see.
MF: OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS falls solidly into the genre of newspaper noir. Are you a fan of noir? Did you begin with the idea of writing a noir novel?
JS: I am a fan of noir, but I really hadn’t read much (if any) until a few people who read early drafts asked if I’d read things like The Maltese Falcon or The Postman Always Rings Twice or L.A. Confidential. When I sat down to write, I had the idea of a novel about a reporter. For many drafts, there was no plot. This, I learned, was a problem. Fifty drafts later, dot dot dot.
MF: The novel’s protagonist, reporter Bernard Cockburn is not a particularly easy character to like. When you created Cockburn, did you begin with a clear idea of the sort of character you wanted, or did his character develop as the novel took shape? Any chance we’ll see Cockburn again?
JS: He definitely developed as the novel came together. He was always a bit of a prick, but nailing down the nuances of his specific prick-ness took a lot of fine-tuning. I do have a chunk of another Cockburn novel sitting in the proverbial drawer, but I’m working on something very different now.
MF: As a novelist, do you think it’s risky to create an unlikable protagonist? Does that raise any additional challenges for the writer?
JS: Absolutely. It is tougher, I think, to write an unlikeable protagonist, because a lot of readers will put down a book if they can’t relate to (oh, how I hate that phrase) or sympathize with (also hate that one) the protagonist. It’s sad, really. Many, many, many of the great characters in literature are traditionally unlikeable. They’re also complex and wonderful to read about. But, really, if a person’s reading tastes are so narrow that they’re only into narratives and characters that reflect their own limited worldviews, well, what can you do? I just wish there weren’t so many of them out there. And they all have blogs. Luckily, there are just as many real readers out there. Some of them have blogs, too, god bless ‘em.
MF: When it comes to his girlfriend Allison, Cockburn isn’t exactly Mr. Sensitivity. Have you received any criticism for your literary creation’s attitude towards Allison?
JS: You know, not really. I sort of expected some criticism for that, but I really haven’t seen it. I was concerned a few years ago that my then-girlfriend wouldn’t appreciate that stuff. We’re married now, so.
MF: On your website www.jonathansegura.com you include a clip from a rejection letter. Here’s a clip from the clip: “I sure hope the autobiographical parts of this novel are the externals, not the psychic aspects.” It seems a bit odd, but when a writer writes a book about unpleasant ugly things, this does seem to be projected onto the creator. Have people confused the fictional Cockburn with you?
JS: All the time. And while he and I may have similar tastes in music, I’m quick to point out that I would never drink Old Crow.
MF: In the novel, Cockburn covers a story about gentrification that quickly devolves into murder. Did you base the novel on any real-life scandal/gentrification projects?
JS: Yes and no. About the time I left Omaha in 2002, there was a huge wave of redevelopment just starting up in and around downtown. I was back in Omaha for the holidays this year, and it’s amazing how much of that area has changed. Condos, restaurants, boutique shops. Also, you can’t smoke in bars there now, which is something I never thought would happen. But, as for the scandal/conspiracy, that’s loosely based on The Franklin Credit Union scandal that broke about 20 years ago. Basically, the manager of the Franklin Credit Union was accused to embezzling money, and the investigation mushroomed into a crazy array of allegations—child sex abuse, child pornography, ritualistic abuse—involving some prominent people, politicians and the like. It was huge news at the time, and a grand jury concluded it was a hoax. If you’ve got some time to kill, Google “Franklin Credit Union Scandal.” Totally batshit crazy stuff, and great reading.
MF: While Cockburn investigates the shady deals behind the gentrification of Omaha, his girlfriend, Allison embarks on a mission to gentrify Cockburn. This creates a marvelous parallel in the novel. Was this parallel intentional?
JS: It wasn’t, and I didn’t even pick up on it until someone pointed it out to me on like draft seven. Felt pretty stupid at that moment. I like to think it was my subconscious doing the work for me. But, once I dialed in on it, it was a lot of fun to calibrate the parallels.
MF: So what’s next?
JS: Tough to tell. I’m in the middle of another novel. Very different, though it, too, is set in Omaha. It’s one of those intersecting fates set-ups. You know how everyone has that crazy uncle who a long time ago put a kitten in a burlap sack and threw it into the river? I feel like that kitten right now.
Read our review of OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS at MostlyFiction.com